Oracle Bones by Peter Hessler, 2006
It was just over a year ago that I picked up a used copy of River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze by Peter Hessler in a Buenos Aires bookstore, and I’ve now found myself preparing to spend at least a year teaching English in China much like the author himself did. In fact, his first memoir was one of my biggest inspirations for pursuing teaching and living in a foreign country. His captivating method of storytelling seems to me to be part memoir and part ethnography, and through his accounts of Chinese life I was able to gain a deeper perspective on a country I frankly knew nothing about. River Town was phenomenal, so naturally when selecting my reading material to prepare for my upcoming adventure, I went for Hessler’s next memoir, Oracle Bones.
This book weaves in and out of Chinese history, exploring the lives of Hessler’s former students, the intricacies of the Chinese writing system and the artifacts that narrate its history, and the politics of individuals living in such a vast, diverse, and confused country in the wake of the Chinese cultural revolution. Hessler is working as a foreign correspondent for several American newspapers, and narrates his time and travels in China eloquently and thoughtfully, and although it is not a plot-driven book by any means, I couldn’t stop turning the pages.
China appears to me as an immensely challenging and complicated place. The variety of Hessler’s stories and accounts throughout his time in China both verifies this notion and helps me to sort through it. He doesn’t just present clear answers to questions about Chinese culture and society, but frames them in a way that evoke thought and discussion. While reading the book, I reflected a lot on my current knowledge of China and tried to rework those ideas using the tools that Hessler provides, and also reflected on my own culture as an American and how we may be perceived through the eyes of a foreign correspondent. I would highly recommend this memoir and lesson in history to anyone who is interested in Chinese culture, or who has a particular affinity for creative non-fiction. Oracle Bones was not only fascinating for me in content, but in process; Hessler’s style of writing is one of which I will never tire.